Lisa Ling launches Dove's "Let's Make Girls Unstoppable" campaign to raise girls' self-esteem. Photo: Mike Windle/Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Laurie Penny on beauty: I don’t want to be told I’m pretty as I am. I want to live in a world where that’s irrelevant

Beauty is about class, money, power and privilege - and it always has been.

Body image is big business. This spring, the Brazilian modelling agency Star Models has launched a graphic campaign with the intention of showing young women how horrific acute anorexia is. It shows models photoshopped to the proportions of fashion sketches – spindly legs, twig-like arms, wobbling lollipop heads.

Given the high-profile deaths of two South American models from anorexia – one of whom, Luisel Ramos, dropped dead of heart failure at a catwalk show – one might interpret this as a way for the agency to detoxify its brand while drumming up a little publicity. But that would be too cynical; the global fashion industry really cares about young women’s health now. That’s why model agencies were recently discovered recruiting outside Swedish eating disorder clinics.

Elsewhere, a new campaign video by Dove uses facial composite drawing to demonstrate how women underestimate their own looks. Dove is owned by Unilever, a multibillion- pound company that seems to have little problem using sexism and body fascism to advertise other products: it also manufactures Lynx, of the “fire a bullet at a pretty girl to make her clothes fall off” campaign, the Slim-Fast fake food range, and more than one brand of the bleach sold to women of colour to burn their skin “whiter”.

The fashion, beauty and cosmetics industries have no interest in improving women’s body image. Playing on women’s insecurities to create a buzz and push products is an old trick but there’s a cynical new trend in advertising that peddles distressing stereotypes with one hand and ways to combat that distress with the other. We’re not like all the rest, it whispers. We think you’re pretty just as you are. Now buy our skin grease and smile. The message, either way, is that before we can be happy, women have to feel “beautiful”, which preferably starts with being “beautiful”.

Let’s get one thing straight: women don’t develop eating disorders, self-harm and have other issues with our body image because we’re stupid. Beauty and body fascism aren’t just in our heads – they affect our lives every day, whatever our age, whatever we look like, and not just when we happen to open a glossy magazine.

We love to talk, as a society, about beauty and body weight – indeed, many women writers are encouraged to talk about little else. What we seldom mention are the basic, punishing double standards of physical appearance that are used to keep women of all ages and backgrounds in our place. For a bloke, putting on a half-decent suit and shaving with a new razor is enough to count as “making an effort”. For women, it’s an expensive, timeconsuming and painful rigamarole of cutting, bleaching, dyeing, shaving, plucking, starving, exercising and picking out clothes that send the right message without making you look like a shop-window dress-up dolly.

Eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia are severe mental illnesses but they exist at the extreme end of a scale of trauma in which millions of women and girls struggle for much of their lives. The fashion, diet and beauty industries exploit and exaggerate existing social prejudice, encouraging women to starve ourselves, to burn time and money and energy in a frantic, self-defeating struggle to resemble a stereotype of “beauty” that is narrowing every year.

Studies have shown that, across the pay grades, women who weigh less are paid more for the same work and have a better chance of promotion than those who are heavier. In politics, in business and in the arts, accomplished and powerful men are free to get fat and sloppy, but women can expect to be judged for their looks if they dare to have a high-profile job: we’re either too unattractive to be tolerated or too pretty to have anything worth saying. Beauty is about class, money, power and privilege – and it always has been. Women and girls are taught that being thin and pretty is the only sure way to get ahead in life, even though this is manifestly not the case.

Those few young women who have fought their way to public acclaim despite lacking the proportions of catwalk models are expected to account for themselves in interviews, from the Oscar-winning singer Adele to the only-ever-so-slightly-plump Lena Dunham.

It’s hard to feel all right about yourself in this sort of toxic beauty culture: as long as “fat” is the worst thing you can possibly call a woman, any of us who dares to speak up or out about what is happening will be called fat, whether or not we are.

“Fat” is subjective and socially situated, and it’s the slur most commonly directed at any girl or woman who asserts herself, whether physically or politically. Even the most stereotypically thin and beautiful woman will find herself dismissed as unattractive if what comes out of her mouth happens to threaten male privilege, which is why feminists of all stripes continue to be labelled “fat and ugly”. This culture would still prefer women to take up as little space as possible.

Rather than fighting for every woman’s right to feel beautiful, I would like to see the return of a kind of feminism that tells women and girls everywhere that maybe it’s all right not to be pretty and perfectly well behaved. That maybe women who are plain, or large, or old, or differently abled, or who simply don’t give a damn what they look like because they’re too busy saving the world or rearranging their sock drawer, have as much right to take up space as anyone else.

I think if we want to take care of the next generation of girls we should reassure them that power, strength and character are more important than beauty and always will be, and that even if they aren’t thin and pretty, they are still worthy of respect. That feeling is the birthright of men everywhere. It’s about time we claimed it for ourselves.

Laurie Penny is the contributing editor of the New Statesman

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Labour's dilemma: which voters should it try to add to its 2017 coalition?

Should the party try to win over 2017 Conservatives, or people who didn't vote?

Momentum’s latest political advert is causing a splash on the left and the right.

One of the underreported trends of 2016 was that British political parties learnt how to make high-quality videos at low-cost, and Momentum have been right at the front of that trend.

This advert is no exception: an attack that captures and defines its target and hits it expertly. The big difference is that this video doesn't attack the Conservative Party – it attacks people who voted for the Conservative Party.

Although this is unusual in political advertising, it is fairly common in regular advertising. The reason why so many supermarket adverts tend to feature a feckless dad, an annoying clutch of children and a switched-on mother is that these companies believe that their target customer is not the feckless father or the children, but the mother.

The British electorate could, similarly, be thought of as a family. What happened at the last election is that Labour won votes of the mum, who flipped from Conservative to Labour, got two of the children to vote for the first time (but the third stayed home), but fell short because the dad, three of the grandparents, and an aunt backed the Conservatives. (The fourth, disgusted by the dementia tax, decided to stay at home.)

So the question for the party is how do they do better next time. Do they try to flip the votes of Dad and the grandparents? Or do they focus on turning out that third child?

What Momentum are doing in this video is reinforcing the opinions of the voters Labour got last time by mocking the comments they’ll hear round the dinner table when they go to visit their parents and grandparents. Their hope is that this gets that third child out and voting next time. For a bonus, perhaps that aunt will sympathise with the fact her nieces and nephews, working in the same job, in the same town, cannot hope to get on the housing ladder as she did and will switch her vote from Tory to Labour. 

(This is why, if, as Toby Young and Dan Hodges do, you see the video as “attacking Labour voters”, you haven’t quite got the target of the advert or who exactly voted Labour last time.)

That could be how messages like this work for Labour at the next election. But the risk is that Mum decides she quite likes Dad and switches back to the Conservatives – or  that the second child is turned off by the negativity. And don’t forget the lingering threat that now the dementia tax is dead and gone, all four grandparents will turn out for the Conservatives next time. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.